Cultural Referents

or Know What You Don't Know

A good literary analysis involves a close reading of the text, in which the particular word choice is considered. Often an author will add layers of meaning to the story that can be confusing or difficult to follow if you don't understand the particular cultural referents of the characters and/or narrator

Here is an excerpt of scene from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, published in 1869. Margaret (or Meg), the oldest of four sisters in a family of limited economic means, is preparing to spend a fortnight (that means two weeks) visiting a friend in a wealthier family. She talks about her wardrobe with her sisters as she packs.

"I wish you were all going, but as you can't, I shall keep my adventures to tell you when I come back. I'm sure it's the least I can do when you have been so kind, lending me things and helping me get ready," said Meg, glancing round the room at the very simple outfit, which seemed nearly perfect in their eyes.

"What did Mother give you out of the treasure box?" asked Amy, who had not been present at the opening of a certain cedar chest in which Mrs. March kept a few relics of past splendor, as gifts for her girls when the proper time came.

"A pair of silk stockings, that pretty carved fan, and a lovely blue sash. I wanted the violet silk, but there isn't time to make it over, so I must be contented with my old tarlatan."

"It will look nice over my new muslin skirt, and the sash will set it off beautifully. I wish I hadn't smashed my coral bracelet, for you might have had it," said Jo, who loved to give and lend, but whose possessions were usually too dilapidated to be of much use.

"There is a lovely old-fashioned pearl set in the treasure chest, but Mother said real flowers were the prettiest ornament for a young girl, and Laurie promised to send me all I want," replied Meg. "Now, let me see, there's my new gray walking suit, just curl up the feather in my hat, Beth, then my poplin for Sunday and the small party, it looks heavy for spring, doesn't it? The violet silk would be so nice. Oh, dear!"

"Never mind, you've got the tarlatan for the big party, and you always look like an angel in white," said Amy, brooding over the little store of finery in which her soul delighted.

"It isn't low-necked, and it doesn't sweep enough, but it will have to do. My blue house dress looks so well, turned and freshly trimmed, that I feel as if I'd got a new one. My silk sacque isn't a bit the fashion, and my bonnet doesn't look like Sallie's."

In order to understand this scene fully, we need to get all of the embedded references. You can figure out that Meg's upset that her wardrobe isn't fancier, but you'd probably need to look up tarlatan, muslin, and poplin to understand what precisely the difference is between these fabrics and the coveted "violet silk." The issue here is largely a matter of historical difference: if we were living in the 1860s, we'd know instantly what these materials are. Alcott expected her readers to understand the cultural referents, so to be good readers of her story, we need to make sure we understand them.

In some stories, the difference may be geographic: a "local" would understand subtle distinctions between various spaces of a city. The difference may be cultural: in one story we'll read, there's a sly joke based on the distinction between Episcopalians and Baptists — that one gets lost on a lot of my students, although for most readers the difference is as clear as comparing Motel 6 and the Waldorf-Astoria.

So how do you know what you don't know? Well, as a reader your job is to look for specific details, and think about how they convey meaning. "She glanced at her watch" doesn't convey as much as "She glanced at her Rolex" — at least not if you know what a Rolex is. So when you see specific details — the type of watch, of religion, of fabric, the particular street, etc.— stop yourself and consider whether you "get" what it connotes. And if you don't, make a point of looking it up.

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